Romantic comedies have a peculiar relationship with sex. It’s treated as the goal, yet it’s rarely mentioned explicitly. It’s hard to attain, yet for the lucky few who succeed, all other fortunes and contentments await. But if romantic comedies struggle to talk about sex explicitly, then they are outright squeamish to talk about its consequences. Not so in this week’s movie recommendation Obvious Child, in which debut director Gillian Robespierre takes aim at rom-coms’ queasiness about the ramifications of an impromptu fling.
Jenny Slate plays Donna Stern, a New York stand-up comic who regularly bears her soul on stage for the amusement of strangers. Hers is the comedy of the revoltingly personal, replete with confessions about farts, filthy underwear, and her moribund sex-life with her scoundrel boyfriend (who happens to be present in the audience and is forcibly corralled into the humiliation). After one such set, he frankly reveals that he’s been cheating on Donna with her friend, and leaves her to pick up the pieces of her already unstable life.
In a drunken stupor one night at the bar, Donna meets Max, a handsome and sweet guy who could as comfortably be typecast as a librarian as a model for Ralph Lauren’s winter collection. He’s the guy you’d be happy to introduce to your mum, but not the guy you envision for a rough-and-tumble one-night stand. When they clumsily hook up, Donna becomes unexpectedly pregnant, and has to deliberate about whether and how to tell Max that she intends to have an abortion. You heard it right: it’s a comedy about an abortion.
The self-effacing honesty of Jenny’s professional comic persona is a vehicle for the hapless, shrug-and-take-what’s-coming attitude she brings to the abortion. But Obvious Child achieves more than just rehearsing the tired trope that sets a comedian’s stage act in relief to the bitterness of their home life. On the contrary, Jenny’s comedy feels like a necessary catharsis, both for her and for us. As audience members, we also struggle to process the challenge in which Jenny finds herself. Not only does her standup routine force us to commiserate with Jenny as she works through her predicament, but we’re also wrested into being active—and unwitting—participants in that therapy. It’s not enough that we listen to her complaints and exasperations; we’re also recruited into her cheering section, demanding that everyone around her do their best to make things just a little easier for her.
The recent alignment of stoner comedies with shock-factor film-making (see The Interview – or preferably don’t – for a noteworthy example) has nonetheless retained a space in which some of the most mundane topics still remain absolutely off-limits. Even Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, which ostensibly was about the same theme of an unplanned pregnancy, desperately steered clear of even mentioning the word abortion (Jay Baruchel’s character wincingly refers to it as “an A-word”). Then again, where there’s discomfort, there’s ripe material for comedy, and while Obvious Child takes aim at that discomfort, it doesn’t go the whole way: The main sources of laughter in Obvious Child are the peripheral challenges that attach to an abortion, including the awkward conversations and the confused questioning about one’s ‘readiness’ to be a parent. It ultimately steers clear of addressing some of the really routine and mundane happenstances that truly can make abortions the uncomfortable life event they are for many, such as unsupportive family members, the stigma, and the expense. Instead, everyone from the best friend to the mother to Max is hearteningly understanding of the life challenge Donna is experiencing. The result is that Obvious Child is a comedy about an inconvenient (aren’t they always?) abortion in a nurturing environment.
It’s Valentine’s weekend, folks. Nothing says ‘I love you’ like ‘I support a woman’s right to bodily autonomy.’
[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]